A new public education movement is emerging in Wisconsin, a rebuke to Gov. Walker’s war on labor and school privatization

July 3, 2018

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Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) launched a war on labor in 2011, enacting a law called Act 10  that decimated the power of public employee unions to bargain, and it also cut pay for most public sector workers.  It was clear that the law was largely aimed at the teachers unions, because Walker exempted the unions of police, firefighters and state troopers from the changes in collective bargaining rights. Not the educators.  There were big strikes by teachers, forcing the closure of some schools for days, but they could not turn the tide. Now it is clear that the impact of Act 10 on teachers unions — and of Walker’s budgets cuts on schools — has been severe.

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A 2017 study by the nonprofit Center for American Progress found that Act 10 resulted in the loss of wages by Wisconsin’s teachers as well as a decline in benefits and experience. More teachers left the profession, fueling shortages, and researchers found preliminary evidence that student standardized test scores — a commonly used metric of achievement even though there are questions about what they really tell us — had gone down as a result.

Furthermore, Walker slashed funding for education, and his hostility to protesting educators did not diminish after Act 10 passed. When he jumped in to the race to win the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, he actually compared protesting teachers to terrorists. When asked in 2015 how he would handle the Islamic State if he was to become president, he said:

“I want a commander in chief who will do everything in their power to ensure that the threat from radical Islamic terrorists does not wash up on American soil. We will have someone who leads and ultimately will send a message not only that we will protect American soil but do not, do not, take this upon freedom-loving people anywhere else in the world. We need a leader with that kind of confidence.  If I can take on 100,000 protesters, I can do the same across the world.”

Yet, as this post shows, there seems to be a new story developing in Wisconsin — new pushback against Walker by people who want to save public education.  This was written by Jennifer Berkshire, a freelance journalist in Massachusetts, co-hosts the education podcast Have You Heardand is at work on a book about the dismantling of public education. Follow her @BisforBerkshire. It first appeared on The Progressive, and I have permission to publish it.

It is worth noting that despite the harm Act 10 did to Wisconsin public schools and his earlier pattern of cutting education funds Walker is actually campaigning for re-election in part on what he calls a “historic investment” in education, as are some other Republican governors, as this Washington Post story explains. Education funding has gone up recently in Wisconsin but is still below what it was in 2009 and Wisconsin residents — Republicans included — are tired of it, as seen in polls and local initiatives to raise property taxes for schools.

Here is Berkshire’s story from Wisconsin.

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By Jennifer Berkshire

It would be easy for labor supporterse to write the story of Wisconsin’s current union landscape as a tragedy. In this version of events, the bomb that Republican Gov. Scott Walker and his allies dropped on the state’s public sector unions has worked just as intended: The ranks of the unions have thinned; their coffers are depleted; their influence over the state and its legislative priorities has been reduced to where, in 2017, the state teachers’ union no longer employed a lobbyist at the statehouse.

All of this is true.

But there is another, more hopeful story to be told about Wisconsin, seven years after Walker officially kicked off his war on labor. It involves parents and teachers and local grassroots activists coming together to fight for the public schools in their communities. While Walker and the Republicans who control Wisconsin’s legislature got their way in 2011, there is a robust ongoing debate, throughout the state, about the role of public education and who should pay for it.

Just as in West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Arizona, and Colorado, states roiled by teacher and parent uprisings this spring, school funding has emerged as a flashpoint in Wisconsin. In the place where the modern era of scorched-earth-style state politics began, local activism around public education may just transform Wisconsin’s political culture.

To understand the nature of the movement that is emerging in Wisconsin, it helps to define what it isn’t. There are no more huge demonstrations of the sort that engulfed the state Capitol building in Madison in 2011, in response to Walker’s infamous “budget repair bill.” After weeks of intense protests, the measure to mostly strip the state’s public sector unions of their collective bargaining rights passed as Act 10 of the legislature’s 2011-2012 session.

“We tried the big protests and they didn’t work,” says Heather DuBois Bourenane, executive director of the Wisconsin Public Education Network. “What you’re seeing now is that the battle has really gone local and grassroots.”

DuBois Bourenane marched side-by-side with teachers from her kids’ school in Sun Prairie, a suburb of Madison. She returned home to find an all-district email from the superintendent, criticizing teachers who had walked out of school to protest and encouraging parents to call in and thank the ones who had stayed behind. DuBois Bourenane was horrified: “I wanted to thank the teachers who did call in sick for standing up.”

Today, the Wisconsin Public Education Network is at the forefront of a statewide effort to support Wisconsin’s public schools and the 860,000 students who attend them. DuBois Bourenane and a small army of parents, teachers, school officials, and ordinary citizens are shining a relentless spotlight on the $2 billion in cuts made to the schools here by Walker and the GOP-led legislature, and demanding a fix to Wisconsin’s deeply inequitable school funding system.

“Go Public,” the network’s official slogan, which is emblazoned on the bright green shirts advocates wear when they testify or “bear witness” at official legislative events, is also a powerful rebuke to the right-wing governing ethos that has dominated Wisconsin since 2010: privatize everything.

“If we don’t save public education, all else is lost. But we can’t stop there,” DuBois Bourenane says. “This is also about changing the culture of a state that has reduced kids to partisan footballs in a political fight.”

Today, Act 10 is mostly thought of as an anti-labor bill, but the law also slashed state aid to schools, while subsequent budgets contained cuts that went even deeper. School districts that suddenly found themselves drowning in red ink were supposed to use the “tools” granted them under the new law to wring savings out of their employees.

“Act 10 meant a $590 cut in per pupil funding and new tools to screw over the staff,” says Steve Sedlmayr,  superintendent of the school district in the far western Wisconsin town of Alma. For a small rural district like his, already dealing with declining enrollment — in the past two decades, he says, total enrollment has dropped from some 440 to 265 — the aid drop was devastating. The year after Act 10’s passage, the school district did something it had never done before: It asked local taxpayers to support what’s known as an operating referendum.

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“What Act 10 did is shift the burden of paying for schools onto property taxpayers,” says Sedlmayr.

Since the law was passed, a record number of Wisconsin school districts have turned to local taxpayers for help funding the schools. And more significantly, voters are saying yes. An overwhelming majority of the referendums that have gone before voters since 2016 have passed, from rural, working-class communities like Ashland to comparatively wealthy districts like Sun Prairie, reflecting the depth of local support for public education.

But the surge in both the number and the success of school referendums has also put Walker and the GOP lawmakers in an uncomfortable position. The right’s logic model had constituents embracing cuts to services, not rushing en masse to raise taxes on themselves. In response, the state legislature last year proposed a raft of new laws aimed at making it harder to approve local school funding referendums. Among the laws that passed: restrictions on when and how school districts can hold referendum votes.

Jeri McGinley, who heads up the nonprofit School Funding Reform for Wisconsin, says that the latest legislative maneuvers are also representative of the Walker era.

“They say that government should play less of a role, but they’re also taking away local control and imposing restrictions,” McGinley notes. “It’s a vicious way to govern.”

Back in the 1990s, Wisconsin imposed caps limiting what each community can spend on its schools, spurred by the anti-property tax fervor of the time. But the caps also had the effect of essentially locking in inequity: property rich districts can spend much more than their poorer counterparts.

Walker’s cuts to education spending, some of the deepest in the nation, made an already unequal system worse, effectively pitting school districts and entire communities against one another. Take the teacher shortage that has followed in the wake of Act 10: Wealthy districts can offer higher wages, even signing bonuses, to attract new teachers, while poor and especially rural districts struggle to fill vacancies and hold onto the teachers they still have.

Then there’s the plague of declining enrollment that is steadily eating away at rural schools. When paper mills and manufacturing plants shut down and family dairy farms close, the kids leave too, and state education funds follow them.

The northern Wisconsin city of Tomahawk, where I attended a hearing held by a commission tasked with reassessing Wisconsin’s school finance system, offers a vivid example of this corrosive dynamic. In the past decade, the student population here has shrunk by 250, down to 1,300 kids in a rural district that encompasses more than 400 square miles. A drop in revenue combined with the state’s deep cuts to education spending has meant that the school district must ask local residents to increase their property taxes again and again, even as the dire financial situation has meant staffing and program cuts.

“It’s a recipe for resentment,” says Kim Kaukl, the executive director of the Wisconsin Rural Schools Alliance.

His hope is that a fairer school funding system can begin to neutralize the power of resentment—and the ability of politicians like Scott Walker to exploit it.

“The mindset in rural areas is that Madison and Milwaukee get everything at the expense of local schools,” Kaukl says. Wisconsin’s largest cities, of course, are also its most diverse, meaning that assertions that they “get everything” are racially coded. “Politicians really play into that feeling of resentment,” says Kaukl. “Then they implement policies that are so bad for education.”

In the Walker era, Wisconsin has become infamous for its divisive politics. And yet the post-Act 10 brand of education activism is decidedly, even insistently, nonpartisan. In a state as divided, or rather “polka-dotted,” by red and blue as Wisconsin, education is still a “purple” issue. Local support for public schools, including increased funding for them, crosses party lines.

So education activists here are making the case that public schools, and more importantly the children they serve, should be free from partisan rancor. This argument has broadened their reach among rural districts across the state, positioning advocates as “the grownups in the room,” as Wisconsin Public Education Network’s DuBois Bourenane puts it.

The story of former paper mill executive Jim Bowman is indicative of the kind of activism that’s flourishing in local communities.

When he helped start a local group, Fox Cities Advocates for Public Education, to support public education after the passage of Act 10, Bowman and his fellow activists decided to eschew the “blue” label.

“We thought that being connected with the Democratic Party would undermine us,” says Bowman, who also serves as a member of the Appleton Board of Education. The group appeals to those whom Bowman refers to as the “purely purples”: parents and other local residents of both parties who care about their schools and are unhappy about the steady depletion of resources from them. These “mad moms” are then encouraged to pressure their local officials, through letters or testimony at public events, or by simply showing up at legislative meetings to send a signal that members of the public are paying attention to education policy.

And the more legislators hear from constituents that they care about public education, the better able they are to counter the influence of big donors and the corporate lobby. “Our goal is to make public education one of the top issues that legislators are hearing about so that they can’t just ignore their constituents,” says Bowman.

Bowman, who initially got active in local politics through Organizing for America, says his group’s nonpartisan approach has given it greater credibility with the public as it seeks to turn the tide of popular opinion against, say, school vouchers.

“When we talk about vouchers, we talk about the lack of the results, the cost, and the fact that the local public is paying for vouchers through their property taxes,” says Bowman. “That lack of transparency really bothers voters in both parties.”

In 2013, Wisconsin lawmakers vastly expanded the state’s private school voucher program, which steers taxpayer dollars to private, mostly religious schools. The measure was backed by an aggressive, and extravagantly funded, lobbying effort by the American Federation for Children, the school choice organization started by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. A subsequent law, passed with no public input, created another voucher program for students with special needs.

The nation’s first parental choice program shifting money from public to private schools was created in Milwaukee, Wisconsin’s largest city, in 1990. Its scope and cost have risen steadily since then, to $269 million in the 2017-2018 school year, when 36,249 voucher students were enrolled in 238 participating schools, overwhelmingly religious.

McGinley of School Funding Reform for Wisconsin has been a driving force behind an effort to make sure that local taxpayers know exactly how much private school vouchers are costing them. In Stevens Point, where she lives, the combination of revenue cuts and school vouchers have cost the public schools dearly.

“We’re now having to raise property taxes in order to pay for voucher students,” says McGinley, whose organization is pushing legislators to add a line item onto local property tax bills that would make clear exactly how much the voucher program is costing. While the Wisconsin Voucher Transparency Bill failed to receive a hearing during the most recent legislative session, it united school districts from rural Rhinelander to urban Racine.

In Racine, where legislators approved a private school voucher program in 2011, the growing burden on local property taxpayers has emerged as a potentially potent political issue. The Racine Education Association recently launched a campaign to educate local voters about the ballooning cost of the voucher program.

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“It’s sort of a politically unifying topic because people care very much about what their property taxes are going to pay for here,” says the union’s president, Angelina Cruz. “The cost burden of having two parallel school systems was really shifted onto local taxpayers without any say.”

The unacknowledged “theory of change” behind much of this nonpartisan activism, of course, is that once voters begin to connect the dots between the specific policies that are undermining their public schools, and the politicians who are enacting them, they will change the way they vote. There is some evidence in Wisconsin — as in the traditionally red states roiled by teacher protests this spring — that such a shift may be underway.

Back in January, a Democratic candidate running in a special election stunned Wisconsin by winning a state senate seat the GOP had held for nearly thirty years, in a district where Donald Trump crushed Hillary Clinton. Education was a major issue in the race. Patty Schachtner, a school board member, ran on a pro-public education platform, calling for restoring funding to local schools, and to the state’s university system, effectively characterizing the Walker-GOP record as one of rural neglect, especially of schools. She defeated her opponent, whose reelection pitch was essentially “keep the Walker momentum going,” by more than 10 percentage points.

But translating strong support for public education into broader political change won’t be easy. In Oshkosh, a blue-collar community in east central Wisconsin, voters passed property tax increases to fund school operating costs in two successive elections by overwhelming margins. Karl Loewenstein, chairman of Support Oshkosh Students, headed up the pro-referendum campaigns and notes that the strongest support for raising taxes to fund the schools came from the most Republican parts of the city.

Voters there bucked local state assembly member Mike Schraa, who actively campaigned against the referendums, arguing that the state had given the schools plenty of money and urging residents to reject a tax increase. But the same voters later sent Schraa, a staunch Walker ally who ran unopposed, back to the capitol.

“Basically you had voters saying ‘Don’t trash our system of public education,’ ” says Loewenstein, who is also a professor of history at University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh.

poll conducted this spring found that voters overwhelmingly say that increasing spending on public education is more important than cutting taxes, a huge swing over the past five years. For Walker, who has placed tax cuts at the very center of his agenda, that could pose a challenge as he seeks a third term as governor this fall. There are already signs that something of a “makeover” is underway. Walker spent much of last year visiting public schools and touting his love of them. He also modestly increased state spending on education, including more funding for rural schools.

“Walker has heard the message that citizens across the state have been screaming at him,” says DuBois Bourenane. But she notes that despite the increased spending, Wisconsin still isn’t back to the funding levels its schools had in 2009.

And, she says, when Walker boasts that he’s the education governor, “he doesn’t mention that his ‘historic investment’ includes nearly $275 million to pay for private school vouchers.”


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